History PhDs Beyond the Academy: Yes, We’re Useful!

It seems like more and more of my fellow PhD students in history are considering careers outside academia. However, most haven’t a clue what kind of job they might want, what kinds of jobs might be available to them, or what they’re qualified to do. Despite the increasing deluge of articles, blog posts, department panels, and university career services devoted to careers off the tenure track, information is sparse. Our knowledge about our prospects beyond the professoriate is vague enough that it’s hardly useful to us.

It’s easy to find very general information on what we can do after graduation. Many seem to know at this point that it’s okay to look for non-academic jobs, and that we history PhDs could consider jobs in fields like editing, publishing, IT, education and nonprofits. The specifics, however, are more difficult to come by. Which of our skills are applicable, and how? What would we actually be doing on a daily basis if we worked in these fields? And why would anyone hire us over candidates with “real” job experience? We know in theory that we can work in IT or publishing, but we haven’t a clue what that means in practice. We don’t really know how or why our graduate school experience might prove attractive to employers, or useful in a new career. We have no idea why a company that makes phone apps might be interested in us, given that we’ve spent the past 5-10 years studying the many uses of sawdust in 1890s rural Romania. (No offense to those who study sawdust. I’m sure it’s fascinating!)

Careers for PhDs: it doesn’t have to be this way!


A few resources are available to fill in these gaps. One great example is Jennifer Polk’s Transition Q & As: a series of interviews with PhDs about how and why they transitioned out of academia, and what their jobs and lives are like now that they’re working outside the academic bubble. Another is Versatile PhD, whose discussion boards also provide some insight into the individual lives of those who’ve moved off the tenure track. The wonderfully-titled So What Are You Going to Do with That? is also very helpful. After addressing our many neuroses about leaving the ivory tower, the book provides plenty of stories that show how academics ended up in “post-ac” jobs and why they enjoy their new careers.

However wonderful these resources are, they’re no substitute for real-life, first-hand experience. It often feels like most of the “transition” stories out there apply only to people who already had some sort of reasonably obvious connection to the industry they ended up in; they became teachers or university administrators, or they turned a side job into a full-time career. But what about those of us who don’t have these connections, or who aren’t interested in teaching or university administration? How do we go from writing dissertations and grading essays to, say, conducting market research? How do we pull off what seems like a complete 180-degree career flip?

I hope my own story might provide some insight. I recently found out that it’s entirely possible to apply our grad school skills to unrelated fields, where we have no experience whatsoever. Unlike most humanities PhD students, I was lucky enough to have the time and funding to do a part-time, unpaid internship outside the academy during one year of my studies. For about 14 months, I served on the Development team at a nonprofit that provides educational programming for underfunded schools.

At first glance, my internship seemed entirely unrelated to anything I’d ever done before–either inside or outside school. I’d previously volunteered for this same nonprofit, but in a very tiny and very different role. I’d never done fundraising, I’d never written a non-academic grant proposal, and I knew absolutely nothing about pre-college education. I hadn’t worked in an office in years, and I’d certainly never worked at a nonprofit. When I got the internship, I saw it as an educational opportunity more than anything. I knew I could learn a lot from my coworkers, but I figured I had little to offer in return… unless, of course, they required a primer on the clergy in 18th-century Mexico. (Shocker: they did not.)

That assumption turned out to be wrong. I quickly found out that many of the skills I’d been honing for years in graduate school were highly valuable to my team. I had a lot to learn about fundraising and nonprofits, but my advanced writing and research capabilities made me an asset. It’s easy enough to pick up the basics on nonprofits over a few months; it’s a lot harder to train an employee to write and conduct research, and to do it well. I already had the necessary skills, and then some–all I had to do to become a productive (and, dare I say, useful?) employee was to adapt those skills to a new context. This was challenging and fun, and proved helpful to my employer. Although I was an intern by name, before long I was responsible for many of the same tasks as my paid coworkers.

In hopes of demonstrating how and why we history PhDs can be useful beyond the professoriate, I’m going to tell you a bit about the grad school skills I used as a nonprofit fundraiser, and why they made me an asset to my employer. We aren’t taught that these are useful, applicable skills; plus, since we’re surrounded by others with these same abilities, it can feel like our skills aren’t unique or important. The fact is, what we do every day as historians is rare, and it’s valuable.

Here are the history PhD skills that proved useful for my nonprofit internship:

Finding Information:

Most of my job involved writing grant proposals requesting funding from foundations to support our educational programs. As part of these proposals, we briefly presented research proving why our programs were necessary, and why our methods were the best ones. When we needed to find out, say, why some aspect of our programming is critical for developing adolescent literacy, I was the go-to person to figure it out.

As a history PhD, you probably know how to find weird little historical tidbits, and to do so in a relatively timely fashion. You know what kinds of sources to go to for various kinds of information. At the very least, if you have a question, you know where to start–and it’s probably not just a random, single-word Google search. You know how to find academic sources, and you know how to find the ones you need.

Even though I knew nothing about demography, educational psychology or pedagogy, in just an hour I could find 12 helpful academic articles and government reports that addressed our question about adolescent literacy. I knew what platforms to start with, I knew what kinds of searches to perform, and I knew how to identify sources that addressed our specific question, not just the general subject. I do this regularly as part of my dissertation research. Adapting this skill to a completely unfamiliar subject was an interesting challenge, but I was well prepared to tackle it. Plus, I got to learn a lot about educational psychology, which, as it turns out, is pretty fascinating.

Research Management:

We’re all doing (or have done) enormous, multi-year research projects, using a wide variety of sources. Some of us have gone through and organized thousands of pages of documentation. This is kind of a big deal. As you probably know by now, organizing information on this kind of scale is a really, really hard thing to do–and it’s a skill we’ve spent years honing.

Organizing research for a nonprofit is different, in large part because multiple people use that research. I had to adapt my methods so that they would make sense to my coworkers (most things to do with my dissertation only make sense inside my head…). But of course, I not only knew how to organize research–I knew how to do it right, to ensure that nothing gets mixed up or improperly placed or disappeared entirely. Having used the Firefox add-on Zotero to organize my own dissertation research, I was able to use it to build a new grant research database for the development team. I may not have had any IT experience, but I certainly knew how to use it for research management.

Evaluating Information and Identifying the Important Parts:

Evaluating information–determining whether it’s valid, and whether it’s directly applicable to the question you’re answering–is a rare skill, and it’s one we history PhDs have in spades. Most of us have completed comprehensive exams that required us to read and figure out the primary arguments and methodologies of anywhere from 50-500 books and articles. We know how to find the important parts, determine whether it’s good information, and find out whether other experts in the field agree with it. And we are very, very good at it.

Once I’d found 12 articles and reports on adolescent literacy, I had little trouble using them to answer our questions. Within these many pages of what was sometimes dense academic jargon, I could find the primary arguments and the facts we needed with relative ease. I could also determine whether those findings had been debunked by other scholars. Rather than outlining every detail of these reports and articles, my research notes indicated (more or less) exactly what we needed to know. It sounds simple enough, but it’s easy to forget that not everyone can do this, and precious few can do it well, or quickly. My experience with historiography allowed me to conduct grant research quickly, efficiently and effectively.

Translating Complex Ideas into Concise, Understandable Prose:

The next step was to condense those 12 articles and reports into just two or three sentences in our grant proposal–to sum up the parts we needed very briefly, and leave the other details aside. Again, having done comprehensive exams, this is something we know how to do. We also do this every time we describe thousands of pages of historiography in a single, tiny paragraph. “Recent scholarship on x shows that y.” This is yet another extremely rare and valuable skill that we history PhDs happen to excel at.

Although we have a reputation for jargon-y writing, most of us have a reasonably good idea of how to write for audiences beyond our own specific field. We’ve all done this for academic grant proposals, and plenty of us have also written blog posts and other non-academic publications. Making complex ideas make sense to a variety of audiences is one of the things we do best. And it’s entirely necessary for nonprofit grant proposals, which are often evaluated by individuals with no expertise in, say, educational psychology. I was able to sum up the research proving that our methods were sound in just a few sentences, and in a way that would be understandable to reviewers.

This skill also proved useful for describing what the nonprofit does, and what problem it seeks to solve. We’ve all managed to describe large-scale historical processes and our innovative approaches to studying them in a few paragraphs for our own academic grant proposals. Not easily, but still–we’ve managed it. Nonprofits and their programs are highly complex too, but once you’ve learned how to cram 200 years of history into half a page, doing the same for a nonprofit seems entirely doable. Challenging, of course, but doable.

By the way: all that time we’ve spent explaining to freshmen how to write an essay? Or, my personal favourite: explaining to them how to explain something? That experience helps too. If you can show a student how accomplish a complex intellectual task, then you’d probably be great at explaining what your nonprofit does and why.

Writing a Compelling Story:

This one proved useful not only for grant writing, but also for fundraising emails. These emails need to grab readers’ attention immediately; in just a few sentences, they need to make the reader care and explain the purpose of the email and ask for money. This was a difficult task, to say the least, but my experience with storytelling helped me determine what would appeal to recipients.

In some ways, a grant proposal is a story too. It needs not only to show what the nonprofit does, but why it matters. Like fundraising emails, grant proposals often require just a tiny bit of heartstring-tugging. One of the first things I learned in Beverly Browning’s grant proposal workshop is to start by setting the scene, by briefly telling the story of what your nonprofit does, or the problem it seeks to fix. The stories we tell in our dissertations are pretty different, but the skill set is the same: we know how to get readers interested and involved.

Be it by email or grant proposal, most fundraising strategies involve convincing an audience that what your nonprofit does is important, and why they should care. If you can pull this off in your grant proposal for your dissertation on the history of sawdust, then imagine what you can do for a nonprofit that does essential work for your community! We’re used to convincing people that what we study matters, and–let’s be honest–given the kinds of things most of us study, that’s really, really hard. If you can envision doing the same for a different kind of audience (for a foundation board, or for your average mom reading her email at home) and with heart-wrenching stories about children suffering the current tragic state of Texas education, then you’d probably be a great fundraiser. Although I always hated this part of academic grant proposals, I really enjoyed it in a nonprofit context, perhaps because I could readily understand why the nonprofit’s work was important.

Working Under Pressure While Being (Mostly) Self-Sufficient:

We’ve all had very different graduate school experiences, but I’m willing to bet that most of us have worked under a lot of stress at some point or another. Many of us have done so with minimal guidance from others. Even those of us with fantastic, engaged and supportive advisers have probably gone long periods trying to figure things out on our own before finally caving and asking for help. I know I have.

While most of us could probably do a little better at asking for help, we have a valuable ability to manage our huge workloads in uncertain situations, with unclear (or no) instructions, and with looming deadlines. This turned out to be especially helpful when the nonprofit I was working for experienced a period of high staff turnover. Sometimes, our team was just me and one other person, with no development director.

Thankfully, that one coworker is some kind of magical genius, and did a fantastic job of keeping us afloat during those somewhat trying times. As I’m sure she can attest, I pestered her with questions on a regular basis. But it also helped that I was already accustomed to figuring things out on my own in the academic world. Having no boss and rotating coworkers complicated things a little, but it didn’t scare me; nor did the enormous workload that comes with staff turnover. These were the kinds of things I was already accustomed to dealing with. We PhDs might think of ourselves as creatures of habit who just sit around and write all the time, but in reality, most of us have tons of experience with uncertain situations. That experience can be a huge asset to employers.

Critical Thinking:

What I described above about identifying the important parts of research falls under this category, but our critical thinking skills are useful in other ways, too. We history PhDs are better than most at understanding details within a broader context, and looking at issues from multiple perspectives. We’re good at finding out what people think (or thought), analyzing that, and figuring out what that means more broadly. We’re good at looking at multiple variables at once and using them to analyze a situation from multiple angles.

Honestly, research aside, I could only use this skill so much as an unpaid intern. I didn’t have the authority to make big decisions. But I did help determine fundraising strategies, and critical thinking certainly came in handy for that. I also saw how our critical thinking skills could prove useful for managing people and doing big-picture strategic planning. People who serve as Development Directors, Executive Directors, and other high-level positions need to be able to consider multiple variables at once, to see how the social/economic/political context might affect their strategies, to understand all their employees’ perspectives, and to determine the best course of action for an entire organization’s success. We do these things all the time–just for the past, rather than for a presently-existing organization. We’d certainly need more experience in our industries of choice to be able to make these kinds of decisions, but we already have the core skills to succeed at it.

These are just a few of what I suspect are numerous valuable skills we history PhDs have been building over the course of our graduate degrees. I hope I’ve shown that what we learn as PhDs is not only applicable outside the academy–it can help us excel there. We need to be willing to learn new things and adapt our capabilities to new contexts, but thankfully we already have many of the base requirements for a successful non-academic career. Although few may care about our expertise in obscure historical areas, we have unique abilities that many employers seek out actively, even in industries we know nothing about. All we have to do is recognize those skills, and let employers know we have them. As Mrim Boutla said at a fantastic talk I attended last year, we can’t just tell prospective employers that we have PhDs; we need to show what that means for them by laying out the skills we’ve been developing in school.

I hope I’ve also shown that working outside the academy can be challenging and interesting, and just as intellectually stimulating as remaining within the ivory tower. The challenges I encountered were different from what I’m used to, but that only made them more compelling. I also got to work with and learn from some very intelligent people, and working with a team was productive and fun. Plus, my hard work resulted in funding for educational programs, which was a nice change from academia’s often-intangible achievements. Academics who claim that straying from the tenure track equates to failure may not have a thorough understanding of all the options available to us. We can use our capabilities in innumerable ways–not just as professors.

If any employers are reading this: hire a PhD! You might find us helpful.


5 thoughts on “History PhDs Beyond the Academy: Yes, We’re Useful!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s